Edward Evans-Pritchard describes how an African community, the Nuer, experience time in a manner that is intimately connected to natural events. This is distinguished by Evans-Pritchard from the abstract form of time that is said to be constructed by the mechanics of his own culture.

Though I have spoken of time and units of time the Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time or of having to co-ordinate activities with an abstract passage of time, because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate.

Also they have very limited means of reckoning the relative duration of periods of time intervening between events, since they have few, and not well-defined or systematized, units of time. Having no hours or other small units of time they cannot measure the periods which intervene between positions of the sun or daily activities. It is true that the year is divided into twelve lunar units, but Nuer do not reckon in them as fractions of a unit. They may be able to state in what month an event occurred, but it is with great difficulty that they reckon the relation between events in abstract numerical symbols. They think much more easily in terms of activities and of successions of activities and in terms of social structure and of structural differences than in pure units of time.

We may conclude that the Nuer system of time-reckoning within the annual cycle and parts of the cycle is a series of conceptualizations of natural changes, and that the selection of points of reference is determined by the significance which these natural changes have for human activities (Evans-Pritchard 1940, 103-04).

Evans-Pritchard, Evan. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Johannes Fabian critiques the anthropological cultural relativisation of time, in part because it distances the anthropologist’s time from the time of the culture being studied. Fabian further notes that physical time is not referred to in its nakedness in anthropological work, but rather the foci are culturally distinguishable times.

Let us call the first one Physical Time. it serves as a sort of parameter or vector in describing sociocultural process. It appears in evolutionary, prehistorical reconstruction over vast spans but also in “objective” or “neutral” time scales used to measure demographic or ecological changes or the recurrence of various social events (economic, ritual, and so forth). The assumption is (and this is why we may call it physical) that this kind of Time, while it is a parameter of cultural process, is itself not subject to cultural variation…

Physical Time is seldom used in its naked, chronological form. More often than not, chronologies shade into Mundane or Typological Time. As distancing devices, categorizations of this kind are used, for instance, when we are told that certain elements in our culture are “neolithic” or “archaic”; or when certain living societies are said to practice “stone age economics”; or when certain styles of thought are identified as “savage” or “primitive.” Labels that connote temporal distancing need not have explicitly temporal references (such as cyclical or repetitive). Adjectives like mythicalritual, or even tribal, will serve the same function. They, too, connote temporal distancing as a way of creating the objects or referents of anthropological discourse. To use an extreme formulation: temporal distance is objectivity in the minds of many practitioners. This, by the way, is reflected with great accuracy and exasperating predictability in the popular image of our discipline. I am surely not the only anthropologist who, when he identifies himself as such to his neighbor, barber, or physician, conjures up visions of a distant past. When popular opinion identifies all anthropologists as handlers of bones and stones it is not in error. It grasps the essential role of anthropology as a provider of temporal distance (Fabian 1983, 22, 30).

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.